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Timothy Garton Ash’s talk in Oxford: the lessons of 1989

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Charlemagne Prize winner Timothy Garton Ash gave a rousing talk for History Society at Oxford University, giving an insight into the events of the revolution from his own ring-side seat. Garton Ash had befriended several dissidents by the end of the Cold War and rushed to the scene when the wall came down, witnessing first-hand the unravelling of a regime that is often deemed as having been inevitable in post-Wende narratives.

The Berlin Wall, June 1989. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Calling on Henri Bergson’s theory of retrospective determinism: the temptation of thinking what happened under certain circumstances indeed had to happen due to those circumstances; Garton Ash emphasized the importance of inspecting the other paths history might have taken, and a string of accidental occurrences which led to the Mauerfall: Politburo official Schabowski’s blunder, consequent ‘fake news’ in Western media about borders opening, and a border guard’s split decision to open a gate.

The people of Eastern Europe looked towards the Tiananmen Square protests which had descended into a massacre, warning each other to ‘watch out for the Chinese solution’. As such, citizens consciously avoided provoking violence from the authorities, and instead led to what became known as the 'Peaceful Revolution' in Germany, and the Velvet Revolution in Prague.

Could a lack of revolutionary catharsis be the root of problems further down the line? 30 years on, we are witnessing an erosion of democracy and rule of law in Poland, while Hungary is no longer a democracy at all.

Negotiations in government between the Communist Party and opposition parties over Poland’s new democracy in 1989 meant the wrongs of the past regime were never publicly denounced. The Polish population never received an official condemnation of the perpetrators of years of martial law and oppression. Garton Ash’s retrospective solution? Have a truth commission to allow people to confront and come to terms with past traumas and ensure non-repetition, similar to Columbia’s commission, which is integral to the peace process after more than 50 years of civil war.

Garton Ash finished by relating the resurgence of the far-right across Europe back to the events of 1989. The fundamental fragility of democratic and legal institutions across Eastern Europe may be due to the fact they have had to be rebuilt from nothing in just 30 years; the re-establishment of private property was widely corrupt, with figures from the old regime left to profit from their positions.

East Germans have voiced their discontent, with 60% stating they feel like second-class citizens - their frustrations stemming not least in part due to increased hardship in the region after reunification led to the collapse of state-owned industry, as well as the underrepresentation of East-German delegates in senior state positions.

A widespread sense of historical injustice has pervaded Europe’s democratic reconstruction, pushing people into the arms of parties like the AfD in Germany and Victor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary: the parties catering to those wanting societal recognition and real change.

Garton Ash is a man with answers. He sees reason in the shift of the mainstream right further to the right (as we’re seeing with CDU chairwoman and Chancellor hopeful Kramp-Karrenbauer’s overtures towards a stricter immigration policy), as an attempt to entice voters from anti-migrant parties.

‘The Magic Lantern’ (originally published in 1990) captured the events of the revolution as they unfolded before Garton Ash’s eyes. A new final chapter considers the legacy of the Mauerfall 30 years on. You can grab a copy here.


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